Kavitha Gandhi, ’94, ’98 MD, ’99 GME, said she remembered being a science-loving high school student wondering what path she should take in medicine and considers herself lucky that her parents were both in the medical field, so many answers to her questions were readily available. However, she also knows her situation is far from universal.
“I am acutely aware that the insights my parents provided me are not available to all young women, so it is very important to me to pay it forward to the next generation,” said Gandhi, a Northwestern Medicine dermatologist and co-chair of the Feinberg Medical Alumni Association Board’s Women in Medicine (WIM) sub-committee. She has moderated four mentoring events for Chicagoland high schools as part of the medical school’s new Women in STEM (WiSTEM) programming series.
The program was launched in January, 2020, after Gandhi and WIM co-chair Nupur Ghoshal, ’01 PhD, ’03 MD, were approached by a Chicago high school looking for a female physician to speak about careers in medicine.
“To meaningfully accomplish the goal of providing students a sense of what a career in medicine might look like, we wanted to provide them with more than one perspective,” Gandhi said.
So, she and Ghoshal gathered a group of Feinberg alumnae who would represent various medical and surgical subspecialties, as well as those who chose physician assistant and physical therapy careers — along with Feinberg students at varying stages in their medical education and training — to tell a more complete story.
That group included Hayley Silver, ’14 MD, assistant professor of Urology and a urologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital; Margaret Danilovich, ’07 DPT, PhD; adjunct assistant professor of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences; Lauren Ashcroft ’16 MMS; third-year medical student Marlise Pierre-Wright; fourth-year Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) student Bettina Cheung; and first-year medical student Meera Ganesh. Along with Gandhi and Ghoshal, the same core group has participated in most of the events thus far.
“It speaks volumes that all of these women not only said ‘yes’ right away when we asked them, but they say ‘yes’ every time we host another group,” says Gandhi. “They are incredibly dedicated to the cause of mentoring young women.”
A Realistic Look at Life in Medicine
While each WiSTEM event has had its own flavor (for example, before COVID-19, the students were able to visit the medical school in person), they all retain the same spirit of openness and approachability — even when conducted at a distance. The most recent event, held virtually the evening of December 9, was attended by 22 students from George Westinghouse College Preparatory High School.
To open the Zoom session, Gandhi demonstrated the vast range of paths one can take that lead to medicine by asking each panelist to talk about their own background, including undergraduate careers in the neurosciences, engineering or the humanities, as well as stints in public policy before medical school.
Gandhi then turned to the questions the high school students had submitted in advance, including how the panelists would describe a typical day or week at work. Pierre-Wright said that an average day finds her rotating in her neurology clerkship, then squeezing in a practice problem before heading to an out-patient clinic to perform a physical exam as part of Feinberg’s Education-Centered Medical Home (ECMH) program. Cheung said her day involved working in a wet lab, reading papers and attending seminars on Zoom.
Ashcroft, a physician assistant, described working four intense days of 10-hour shifts — rushing from patient to patient and task to task — then has three days off and “when I’m off, I’m off,” she said. Silver, on the other hand, a surgeon, said she is “never really off.” Ghoshal, a neurologist and associate professor in the Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, has a busy routine of 14 days in the hospital seeing general neurology patients with seizures, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, followed by two weeks of “putting her PhD hat on” to keep up with her neuroscience research, then back to the hospital, where she also does administrative work.
Another topic — work-life balance — hit close to home, according to Silver and Pierre-Wright, who both have young children. They agreed that the sacrifices they make are worth it as they advance in careers that they love while serving as role models for their children.
“I love that I get to fix people with my hands — that is very fulfilling,” said Silver. “I’m also showing my daughter that you have to do what is right for you.”
In the end, Gandhi encouraged the young women to “be the architect of your own path, never accept ‘no’ for an answer, and know that you will always have a group of women who are happy to help you along the way.”
Danilovich (for whom Tasha Weatherspoon ’98, PT, stood in at the December event) later pointed out that the high school students and mentors are not the only ones who benefit from these events. Society at large benefits when women in medicine help those coming up behind them.
“It is so rewarding and inspiring to interact with a younger generation of women who are passionate about science, health equity and access,” she said. “They are entering healthcare fields with a desire to change the world for the better, and being able to educate them about careers in healthcare — including those that are ‘lesser-known,’ such as physical therapy — makes these panel experiences extremely worthwhile.”